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2019 Under Pressure

Under Pressure: Dana Alsamsam

(in)habit, Dana Alsamsam

Dana Alsamsam is a first generation Syrian-American from Chicago and is currently based in Boston where she works in arts development. A Lambda Literary fellow, she received her MFA in Poetry from Emerson College where she was the Editor-in-Chief of Redivider and Senior Editorial Assistant at Ploughshares. She is the author of a chapbook, (in)habit (tenderness lit, 2018), and her poems are published or forthcoming in The Massachusetts Review, North American Review, The Shallow Ends, The Offing, Tinderbox, Salamander, BOOTH, The Common and others. 

Interview

Bina Ruchi Perino: How long did (in)habit take to write from conception to publication?

Dana Alsamsam: This may be a political answer but (in)habit took my entire life to write. It’s a chapbook, not a full-length, but it still very much has the feeling of a first collection because I am working through a lot of childhood traumas and coming-of-age narratives. Technically, I would say, the collection is a summation of everything I wrote during undergrad that I was proud of, and was published about a year after I graduated. So, for a real answer, let’s say five years.

BRP: How do you feel about deadlines? Do you give them to yourself?

DA: I’m very type A and don’t have an issue with deadlines. I love a spreadsheet. 

BRP: Who are you currently crushing on arts-wise?

DA: I love this question! There are two poets who I’m seriously rooting for and following closely right now. Both of these poets not only write breathtaking, experimental, compassionate poetry, but they are also organizers, activists, and community builders that I stand behind. I’m grateful for their work in many ways. 

One of these poets is Porsha Olayiwola, poet laureate of Boston, who I had the great opportunity to be in workshop alongside while at Emerson.

The other is Kay Ulanday Barrett who I had the absolute pleasure of meeting at the Lambda Literary Retreat for Emerging LGBTQ Voices in 2018.

Book them. Pay them. 

BRP: Besides writing, what other daily rituals do you participate or feel are important to your writing?

DA: I’m a very physical person and writing through and back into my body has always been generative, and essential, to my work. As a queer, Arab-American woman I often think about how the bodies of my people are codified and, if not deemed generally acceptable, marginalized. I also want to get rid of this idea that it’s cute to be purposely unhealthy, or to sacrifice your physical and mental well being to be a prolific artist. This is all to say, my daily rituals involve movement in many forms. I am a dancer and choreographer for a few dance companies in Boston, I walk everywhere, and I also train at the gym for strength and athleticism. My movement and writing practices are wonderfully intertwined. When we are able to gather physically again, collaborations along these lines will be in the front of my mind.

BRP: What is a favorite piece of advice from a mentor of yours? How did it help you with your writing?

DA: The day I met Ryka Aoki, the cohort leader at summer 2018’s Lambda Literary Retreat for Emerging LGBTQ Voices, she said something very close to this: “I’m so glad you’re here. I’ve spent a lot of time with your work. You have incredible discipline and musicality. In fact, you’re disciplined enough to be so much braver.” I’ll never forget that. 

Book her. Pay her.

BRP: What was the biggest struggle you endured while writing (in)habit?  

DA: (in)habit, similarly to most things I write, heavily features my family members. I constantly grappled with the conflict of being able to tell my story, express my hurt and pain, sort through intimate personal tragedies that built who I am, but that portray my family in a negative light. I had to get to a point of accepting that speaking my struggle, my emotional breakthroughs, my damage is not an attack on them. I have a right to this story. I write about it because it’s important. 

BRP: Do you keep a journal, or do you prefer to write on anything you can find?

DA: I try to always have a journal with me. 

BRP: Would you consider yourself an editor or more of a curator?

DA: I am no longer in any editorial roles except for freelance poetry consulting (email me if you’re interested, dana.alsamsam@gmail.com). When I was Editor-in-Chief of Redivider, I thought of myself more so as a community leader, a thought leader, an energy leader. I did a lot of difficult work behind the scenes planning, fundraising, creating institutional materials, etc. but what my community saw is what I gave to them, and that was the most important part of the work for me. This super difficult “labor of love” industry needs compassion and authenticity, but that’s a thought for another day…or a very long essay…I work in arts fundraising now and often feel inspired or pushed forward by the imbalances I felt working in editorial.

BRP: When and how does inspiration find you? For example, do you go outside to find it in nature, or does it suddenly come to you in the middle of the night?

DA: I haven’t written much at all since the global pandemic began. When I have the energy, I try to read and take inspiration from others while my own creative heart is tired. Typically, however, inspiration comes while walking. I don’t really have time in my days to sit down and write. I walk and take transit everywhere, so I try to use that built-in, rhythmic time for my body and mind to recalibrate with the present. I try not to distract myself with content during this time, instead taking the opportunity to be mindful of my physical and mental state. This simple, mindful curiosity is often followed by inspiration. Walking while digitally scribbling in my phone notes is a regular practice.

BRP: If you had to describe (in)habit in only three words, which would they be and why?

DA: Suburban. Grotesque. Intimate.

Order (in)habit here!